Category: Foreign Service

:: good friday procession ::

We weren’t really prepared for the intense demonstrations of faith that are an integral part of the Good Friday procession in Quito.  We had heard that the procession is an enormous event.  All through the streets of the Centro Historico, thousands of people slowly march in front of the enormous glass enclosed figure of Jesus del Gran Poder, a representation of Jesus carrying his cross on the way to being crucified.  The procession in Quito is one of the largest in the world and hundreds of churches send their penitents to take part.

It is a little overwhelming to see the commitment that these people undertake.  Each group will have one, or more, ‘Jesus’ carrying a cross, with a crown of thorns, and invariably with chained ankles.  Some of these crosses are enormous tree trunks or telephone poles and require assistants to help lift it on and off the shoulder each time there is a stop in the procession – which occurs frequently.  Barefoot, over cobbled streets, and up and down the hills of Quito – this is a show of faith that is to be respected regardless of your religious leanings.

Sprinkled in are people walking with cacti crosses strapped to their bare backs, complete with their blood dripping down. Arms tied out to form a cross, the physical pain to the shoulders must be intense.  Women and children take part, with many of the women playing the role of Veronica – the woman who gave Jesus a cloth to wipe his face on his procession to be crucified.  For the rest of the marchers, they are dressed in purple robes and tall pointed hoods and walk silently throughout.  Bands play religious music and help inspire the marchers.

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All in all it was an amazing experience, but we decided not to wait the requisite hours to see Jesus del Gran Poder – especially since we had three kiddos under the age of 9 with us!  It was another great reminder of how lucky we are in the foreign service to have these chances to see cultural events up close and in person.

:: hot relaxation ::

Relaxing in a hot spring with a light rain falling is truly a wonderful feeling. The extra steam that the rain causes and the mist hanging over the mountainsides make the setting feel hundreds of miles away from reality. Sitting in an area of volcanic fed hot springs, the little town of Papallacta is a perfect little escape from Quito. Only 40 kilometres up and over the 4,000 metre Papallacta Pass brings you to a place nestled amongst the eastern cordillera of the Andes.

The road is excellent and the views are stunning on the way up – with expansive hillsides giving way to the occasional view of the snow capped peak of Antisana – the fourth highest mountain in Ecuador. There are hiking trails to enjoy and the promise of bespectacled bears wandering out in the paramo, but we never saw any on our trips.

The baths themselves are well maintained and offer a truly relaxing setting. Spa treatments and lunch are easily at hand and for those that want an extra lengthy pampering session, you can spend the night and enjoy semi-private pools just outside of your room.  You can even take a break from it all and explore the short hiking trail loop above the spa.

The main pools offer a variety of water temperatures and sizes, perfect for everyone – toddlers included! Piper loved the warm water and fountains that would pour out on our heads. She even took to jumping in from the side the last time we went! For the truly brave there is a plunge pool fed directly from the non-volcanic stream. The sudden rush of near freezing water is not for the faint of heart – literally!

Whether you partake in all or some of these offerings, it is a wonderful experience to ease into the relaxing waters high up in the Andes. The peace and tranquility are hard to beat.

:: staring into the deep ::

Are we going down there? Even the donkeys seem to be struggling. Standing atop the crater rim and looking down at the mineral infused water there were only three options – down, around, or back to the car. Though the waters beckoned, the whipping wind and impatient toddler led us back to the car. A well-measured decision.

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Quilotoa stands on the western edge of the Andes and its crater lake is hypnotic. Looking down on the green waters and pondering the depth of over 250 meters, all the while surrounded by the parched rocky soil at the top, makes you realize the violent history of this place.

It is yet another place drastically affected by the seismic and volcanic upheavals under the earth’s surface. In 1280, Quilotoa erupted for the last time, further carving out the existing crater and creating the nearly symmetrical expanse of the current lake. Now you can swim, kayak, and wade into the peaceful waters. Some believe Quilotoa is the last resting place of Inca Atahualpa, so to some indigenous peoples it is sacred.

We didn’t spend much time right at the crater, but rather made our way to the cozy little retreat of Black Sheep Inn. There we settled into a diet of delicious brownies, cookies, endless tea and coffee, and the best high-altitude pancake recipe. The room was cozy, the fire powered sauna was warming, and the views were stunning.

It wasn’t all over-indulgence however, as we enjoyed the Skywalk – a hiking route around the surrounding crumbly hillsides that takes in much of the ever-changing scenery. We started in near sunshine and ended in fog, but thoroughly enjoyed the scrambling, climbing, and insight into the countryside.

On another hike, we explored a little known queseria, or ‘cheese factory’, hidden in the hillsides above Chugchilan. Here a couple of men were working hard, using traditional cheese making techniques learned by some Swiss missionaries. We explored the three room house that was the cheese factory and learned a bit about their process. We left with a round of cheese that we thoroughly enjoyed on our other hikes.

Cora returned again to Quilotoa with Piper and our good friend Ruth from the UK and was treated to a much kinder day in terms of weather, at least initially. The three of them climbed down into the depths of the crater and relaxed in the Ecuadorian sun along the turquoise waters. The hour long climb back up on foot was grueling, especially with a 30lb pack, but it was worth it to feel so close to this magnificent crater lake.

Many people do long distance hikes in this region – travelling from village to village – and it is easy to see why. Quilotoa is the main draw but the rolling hills, interspersed with rocky mountain outcrops, lend themselves to exploration. Little homesteads tucked away in forgotten nooks and crannies give evidence of a lifestyle unchanged over the centuries.

Quilotoa is the perfect place to unplug, unwind, and detach from the hustle of modern life. Bring your energy for the strenuous hikes, and your appetite for a decadent brownie to finish!

:: charming cuenca ::

If there was any doubt about Ecuador’s Spanish colonial history, all you need do is look at the squares that dominate every city, town, and village across the country. The curving paths around fountains, lush trees and blossoming flowers, colorful buildings with cast iron balconies and large windows, countless domes and archways are reminiscent of the many cities of Spain.

Nestled in the southern spine of the Ecuadorian Andes, Cuenca is a city of spires, squares, and exquisite colonial architecture. It is smaller and more laid back than either Quito or Guayaquil but still a bustling place in its own way.  It’s a wonderful place to stay a few days, or even years as is the case of many expats who have decided to stay. With a nice and compact city centre that is easily walkable, Cuenca lends itself to aimless meandering walks.

If you give yourself to the freedom of having no where to be, then Cuenca exposes great little wonders from the cobbled alleyways to the small artisanal shops and colorful street decor. The simple pleasure of an ice cream cone in the park can be fully appreciated for the slower pace of life. It is what travelling is meant to expose.

We admittedly didn’t spend a lot of time in the city itself, preferring to explore the wilds of Cajas National Park and the surrounding artisanal villages, but it was clear how one could find a quiet peace in the city; and stay.

 

 

:: our new mountain home ::

So Lesotho is the Mountain Kingdom, but Quito is a truly mountainous city.  We are now in our new home nestled amongst the mountains and volcanos of the Andes just a hop, skip and jump from the Equator.  Quito is a city of two million people packed into a valley 9000 feet above sea level and in the shadow of the semi-active volcano Pichincha.

To say the views are amazing is a serious understatement.  When it is clear you can see towering peaks both very close and more than 50 kilometres away.  When the clouds roll in, you catch glimpses of mountainsides affected by ever changing light conditions.  And then sometimes it is just solid cloud and you can feel as if there aren’t any mountains at all.

Cotopaxi Volcano is about 50km to the south but has a prominant place on the horizon on a clear day.  This is the same volcano that threatened to erupt last year, and experts say it is still overdue. 

We have been lucky in that our house was ready for us and most of our belongings from Lesotho arrived a week after we did, so we are already mostly settled into our home.  All we need are a few things coming from DC and the chance to hang pictures and other art on our expansive white walls.  And once our car arrives we will truly be free to explore this captivating landscape.  We have acclimated to the elevation so now it is time to start hiking up ancient volcanos, exploring little market towns and making plans to visit the Galapagos Islands and further afield.

Two years will be gone in a flash and there is much to explore.  Stay tuned for more photos and stories of our adventures in Ecuador!

:: sala hantle lesotho ::

Two years.  They can pass in an instant.  It is nearly impossible to sum up our time in Lesotho.  It has been amazing in so many ways – the friends we have made, the places we have seen, the challenges we have faced.  It is crazy to think back to that Friday afternoon two plus years ago and how receiving a little flag with a hat on it has changed our lives forever!

People always ask us what it was like to live in Lesotho and we can’t answer without smiling.  Here is a country of striking natural beauty, with mountains, rivers, harvested fields, gorges and waterfalls that you could spend a lifetime wandering over, through and beneath.  The people are open and warm, a ready smile as soon as you say ‘Lumela’.  It was a place we easily called home for two years – a place we could have stayed much longer.

Though Lesotho is a place of majestic beauty, it is also sadly a country of equally great challenges.  HIV/AIDS and TB is rampant.  Poverty is endemic.  Education is massively underfunded and supported.  And political divisiveness threatens to tear the country apart.  Sometimes the basic functionalities of government and civil society seem to be a herculean task.  Even leaving the country has its own challenges with an enormous amount of inconsistency and conflicting relations with its surrounding neighbour.

It is frustrating to see the unfulfilled promise of a country and a people, especially when you know that they have so much to offer.  Lesotho could easily be an eco-tourism hot spot, which in turn could bring in much needed income to its population.  There are already success stories, like Maliba Lodge, Malealea Lodge, Semonkong Lodge and Afri-Ski.  There could be dozens more with the natural beauty of Sethlabethebe National Park, Katse Dam and Sani Pass just to name a few.  It will take a major change of mentality and that is always a grand challenge.  Still, we remain hopeful that others will find this country and with that, new opportunities can be created to help to improve the lives of the Basotho.

For us, it was a brave new world.  Our first assignment in the U.S. Foreign Service.  Our first experiences in sub-Saharan Africa.  Our first time living in a developing country.  We knew our lives would change, but in what wonderful and weird ways, we never could have guessed.

Firstly, we travelled.  Both of us, but especially Cora, travelled all over Lesotho.  There are few people, either Basotho or foreigners, who have seen more of Lesotho than Cora.  For her job she was able to visit communities so far remote that she and her colleague Hopolang sometimes had to take horses or walk for an hour or two to complete the visit.  That would be after a similar length of time bumping and jostling over the ever diminishing dirt tracks in a 4×4 vehicle.  No matter where you went, whether close to home or across to the opposite border, this country has never stopped offering viewpoints that will simply leave you speechless.  I know we have described some of these sites in other blog entries, but truly, it is hard to properly explain what it is like to travel around this country.

We met amazing people here.  So many have left large imprints on our hearts and spirits.  Some are like us, nomads out exploring the world and fortunate to have backgrounds and opportunities to do so.  Others are permanently at home in Lesotho so we will have to remain connected through electronic means and keep the firmly held belief that we will once more see each other in some future time.  People make an experience truly magical and that was certainly true for us in Lesotho.  Rea leboha especially to our Basotho friends and colleagues who connected with us and showed us amazing patience, love and interest.  You all know who you are.

Professionally this was an amazing first tour.  Though it was more limited for Cora, in that she wasn’t able to formally use her skills as an Intercultural Consultant, she was able to work in an extremely fulfilling job that allowed her to support a lifeline of funding and empathy for Basotho.  For me, it is hard to imagine a location and job that would have offered me more opportunities than I had here the past two years.  My role as the General Services Officer (GSO) allowed me to experience so many different facets of U.S. Embassy functions and I learned and developed a tremendous amount.  The challenges were great, and nearly constant, but the lessons I have learned and skills I have acquired will serve me well for years to come in this career.

We could write an entire book about Lesotho and the emotions it stirs in us, but ultimately we fear that anything we write will leave out a key component of our lives here and truly will not do this wonderful place the justice it deserves.  For this, we will simply say that if you can find your way to Lesotho, do so, and you will not be disappointed.  Until you do, come and visit Lesotho virtually through our gallery: http://www.pbase.com/malinakphotography/lesotho

Rea leboha ha holo dear mountain kingdom and Basotho people.  We will miss you dearly and hold the memories we have from here forever in our hearts.  Not least of all, we carry with us the most beautiful tangible memories of Lesotho through our gorgeous Mosa girl and little Moeti to be.

We know that we will return.  No doubt in our mind, we will return.

In the meantime… Khotso, Pula, Nala!

 

*Note*: For those of you following our blog through email, first of all thank you.  Secondly, apologies for these recent posts which seem a bit out or order, and late.  We are finally catching up on all of our posts and are backdating older ones so please bear with us… More soon on our current adventures!

:: making a house a home ::

A recurring theme you will hear people talk about in the Foreign Service is their household effects, most often referred to as their HHE.  As you move around the world from one post to another, your world of belongings follow you by boat and truck and other slow means of transport, and eventually arrive several months later.

Some posts don’t allow you to bring everything and so after a few moves you can easily find yourselves with things in numerous storage locations around the world.  Even the most organised person will end up having the wrong things in the wrong place. Whether it’s a 110V appliance in a 220V zone, a wardrobe of winter clothes in a hot climate or your favourite picture, it’s easy for things to get packed into the wrong box headed to the wrong place at the wrong time.

Trying to then store things that come that you don’t need, having to buy something you already own that didn’t get shipped, or selling something you can’t move, managing HHE can be frustrating at times.  That, combined with the long waiting game, the preparation that goes into the packout before any departure and the unpacking process upon arrival,  it’s understandable why this is a popular talking point amongst expats.

When you arrive at post there are a whole number of things that you end up waiting for, so it’s easy to find yourselves counting the days until certain things happen. Waiting to get into your assigned housing, waiting for your car shipment to arrive from some far flung place, waiting for your HHE, waiting for certain jobs to be posted – all things that go a long way to helping you feel like you can really enjoy the relatively short time you have in each two or three year post.

We have tried hard not to wish away the time until our stuff arrived and to instead maximise our time through other things, but this was sometimes hard.  I’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve said, ‘it’s coming’.  Glasses, measuring cups, large baking bowls, wood saw, herbs and spices, more than four forks, ironing board and our tools are just some of the things we have found ourselves looking for.  Added to that is the lack of pictures and decorations that would truly make the house feel like ours.  Though these are simple things that sometimes we don’t feel, there are other days where you feel like it’s hard to make any progress on anything.

In the grand scheme of things we have lived here quite well without any of these things, and so to some extent we wonder whether lugging these things all over the world is truly worth it.  We are extremely lucky with our housing assignment, the somewhat limited but useful Welcome Kit and furniture they provide, so really there isn’t any reason to complain.  But then we sit on our government provided sofa from the 80s, all scratched up from the previous tenants’ cats, with a back so low your head doesn’t relax, and we find ourselves dreaming of our lovely sofa and cushions that we bought with our wedding money ten years ago.

As I find myself using bread pans as mixing bowls, mugs for orange juice or a bucket as a toolbox, I do find myself thinking some of these little things will be easier when our stuff comes.  I’ve stayed busy working on projects that I could do without our things and so we’ve built a compost bin and headboard, prepared coat and tool racks, landscaped the garden and refinished the government provided outdoor furniture.  But now several of my projects are half finished as I wait for the saw, the masonry bits and drill, vegetable seeds and sewing machine so I’m reaching a point where I’m running out of things to do.

The timing is perfect however.  Two and a half months since we moved from DC, and nine months since we last saw our things in London, we are finally just mere days away from having our HHE delivered.

So how does this all work?  It’s a pretty simple process…

Step 1 – pack up your life to move
Step 2 – chase HHE
Step 3 – chase HHE some more
Step 4 – prepare for arrival of HHE at short notice
Step 5 – chaos
Step 6 – more chaos
Step 7 – even more chaos just when you thought it should be done
Step 8 – almost a home
Step 9 – home sweet home

Most people who know me know how much I love making a home and getting settled, fast, so hopefully we can find ways to skip steps 6 and 7 and go straight to 9.  We will have one slight complication to this whole process that may delay things a bit but it’s only a tiny thing that is just going to add to all of the makings of a lovely home – more on that later.

In the meantime hopefully this whole process will be smooth and fast and soon we will have all of the comforts and things special to us to truly make this house a home.